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Toilet democracy
Taurai Maduna,
July 12, 2005

View audio file details: Interview with Owen Maseko; Owen Maseko - Biography

All pictures by Taurai Maduna

Owen Maseko reading the bible in the toiletZimbabwe attained independence in 1980. But what does 25 years of independence mean to the ordinary Zimbabwean? Does it mean standing in a long queue waiting for a bag of sugar or questioning what has led a black man to oppress his fellow comrades?

These are just a few of the thought provoking questions scrawled on the walls of a grimy public toilet in a public art installation at the just ended Khululeka Exhibition in Bulawayo. Artists and painters at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo were encouraged to present various interpretations of their understanding of Freedom in Zimbabwe.

Khululeka is a Ndebele word meaning "to be free".

On the opening night of the exhibition, Addelis Sibutha, Regional Director of the gallery described the exhibition as one that would compel Zimbabweans to talk about the economic, social and political issues they face in their everyday lives.

The work of Owen Maseko a 30-year-old Zimbabwean artist attracted much attention. Owen chose to depict filthy, public toilets as the only place in Zimbabwe where, in his view, freedom of expression was possible.

One might ask why the toilet has become the only place were one can liberate the mind?

White people do not Q for sugar, why?Owen Maseko says toilets are the only democratic place left where members of the public can say exactly whatthey want to say without fear of retribution. His work includes graffiti with one message asking why "white people do not queue for sugar?" Maseko says some white members of the public who saw his work ended up donating sugar to him reassuring him that they spent hours queuing for the sought after commodity "just like everybody else".

The artist adds that one particular woman approached him saying she was inspired by the message because she realized that there are many so-called "obvious" things - like queuing - that she doesn't do. Maseko said he is not against white people but as an artist he reflects what ordinary people are saying. Zimbabwe has been experiencing severe shortages of basic commodities causing thousands of Zimbabweans to spend many hours in queues with the majority being black people.

The artist also acknowledges that he himself has been tempted to use toilet walls to express things he's heard people talking about, mostly political sentiments that people are generally too afraid to voice.

"People of different political affiliations often use the same toilet, it doesn't matter if you support ZANU PF or MDC or any particular party." He said there isn't a toilet for ZANU PF or MDC. Toilets are democratic spaces open 24hrs a day to any member of society." I have never seen anyone writing in a public toilet and no one has seen me writing in a public toilet", laughed Maseko. It appears that toilets are one of the few leveling grounds when it comes to Zimbabwean politics!

Black man is full of oppressionBut what has led to Zimbabweans to express themselves on toilet walls? The Zimbabwean government has created laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). These laws have made it difficult for the people of Zimbabwe to express their views openly without fear. The medium that had become the voice of the voiceless was the independent daily paper, The Daily News. But this paper was shut down on September 11, 2001. To date the Zimbabwean government has closed other newspapers namely The Tribune and The Weekly Times.

When Zimbabwe attained independence the people thought the black government was the messiah and life was about to change. However, the black government seems to oppress the very same people it purports to have liberated.

One fool at a timeSome of Owen Maseko's graffiti reinforces this: "Black man is full of oppression".
Maseko said the people and the events that happen around him inspire him in his art. One ofthese events is depicted in the painting "One fool at a time". The artist said the painting is about politicians who disagree and shout at each other in parliament. Instead of discussing how to help their constituents, he likened the events in parliament to people who want to use one public toilet all at the same time. To make matters worse, the toilet is not working and is overflowing with waste.

A former Zimbabwean opposition MP, Roy Bennett was recently released from jail. He had been incarcerated because of assaulting a fellow parliamentarian in a heated debate in parliament. The topic of the debate was Zimbabwe's controversial land reform programme. The assault took place after the Minister of Justice and parliamentary affairs Patrick Chinamansa accused Bennett's ancestors of being thieves.

While an exhibition like Khululeka is open to many interpretations, Maseko adds that viewers' interpretations of his paintings are shaped by an individuals background and understanding of art. The artist said he was pleased with the public's response to his work because "it's a comforting feeling to have such an over whelming response - it's a sure sign that you really managed to get the message across."

Some other issues that the exhibition focused on included HIV/AIDS, religion, the plight of street children and women. The exhibition was strengthened by the participation of a variety of artists such as Alexander Lees, Sibonisile Ndlovu, Sikhulile Sibanda and Voti Thebe amongst others.

Audio File

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